What Happens When You Have an Out-of-Body Experience?

blurry woman looking off into the distance

Michelle Pallant / Eye Em

We usually experience our conscious selves as located within our bodies, but when you have an out-of-body experience it feels like your conscious self is separate and outside of your physical body.

While not a formal diagnostic term, an "out of body experience" may be an extreme form of depersonalization. This can be one of the symptoms of the dissociative disorder known as depersonalization/derealization disorder.

Out-of-body experiences are associated with a number of factors, including near-death experiences, sleep, and medical conditions like migraines and epilepsy. Despite a growing body of research on the topic, neuroscientists, cognitive researchers, and psychologists don’t have one single answer to the question of what causes out-of-body experiences.

This article, will outline the typical features of out-of-body experiences, touch on the many potential causes of out-of-body experiences, and then wrap up by exploring what research has uncovered about the physical systems that play a role in out-of-body experiences.

What Happens During an Out-Of-Body Experience?

While different scholars have described out-of-body experiences (OBEs) in different ways, they generally agree that during an OBE an individual feels their consciousness is located outside their physical body or experience a "split-self," with one part observing and one participating. OBEs usually include additional common features, such as:

  • The perception of floating in an elevated position that’s spatially distant from the body
  • The feeling of seeing the world from that elevated perspective
  • The feeling of seeing the self from the elevated perspective
  • A break in the unity of the body and the self
  • A sense that the experience is very real

By some estimates, 5% to 10% of the population will have at least one OBE during their life.

History of Out-Of-Body Experiences

People have known and been fascinated with OBEs for a long time, with documentation on the phenomenon going back to at least the late 1800s. OBEs are experienced by people in almost every culture around the world.

The phenomenon has often been linked to psychiatric disorders. However, within the last few years, research evidence has increasingly pointed to OBEs being the result of problems with processing in the body's sensory systems.

What Causes Out-Of-Body Experiences?

There are a number of circumstances and conditions that seem to make it more likely that people will have an OBE. These can cause one of two kinds of OBEs: spontaneous OBEs or induced OBEs.

Spontaneous Out-Of-Body Experiences

Research has shown that people who experience induced as opposed to spontaneous OBEs are more likely to report feeling the sensation of leaving their physical body prior to the OBE. Causes of spontaneous OBEs include:

Near-Death Experiences: OBEs often accompany near-death experiences, and appear to be the product of disruptions in the brain during life-threatening situations. Studies have found that survivors of cardiac arrest have frequently reported OBEs during CPR in which visual and auditory perception is experienced as separate from the body.

Sleep: The relationship between OBEs and sleep has been investigated by a number of scholars, who’ve found that OBEs are most often reported just before falling asleep, resting, or dozing and just before waking up. It has also been associated with conditions such as sleep paralysis.

Medical and Mental Health Conditions: There are a number of neurological and mental health conditions that have been associated with an increased likelihood of OBEs, such as:

Induced Out-Of-Body Experiences

People who experience induced OBEs are more likely to have the sensation of floating away from their body before the OBE. Causes of induced OBEs include:

Chemicals: A number of drugs with hallucinogenic and dissociative properties including ketamine, marijuana, heroin, mescaline, and LSD have been linked to a higher prevalence of OBEs. OBEs have also been reported by people undergoing anesthesia.

Body Position: Body position appears to play a role in OBEs, with most research suggesting that OBEs are most likely to happen, whether spontaneous or induced, in a supine, relaxed position. Rapid body position changes, such as quick acceleration or deceleration, also seem to be more likely to induce OBEs.

Strong G-Forces: Pilots and astronauts can experience OBEs when they encounter strong gravitational forces. This appears to the result of blood partially draining from the brain and pooling in the lower body, which may lead to a loss of consciousness and possible OBEs. These forces can also lead to disorientation which may be a factor.

Other ways of inducing OBEs: OBEs can also be induced, intentionally or unintentionally, through:

What Happens Physically When You Have an Out-of-Body Experience?

OBEs are very difficult to study because they’re usually spontaneous, only last a short time, and happen just once or twice in a lifetime, if they happen at all. However, several studies have explored the systems in the brain and body that play a role in OBEs.

One recent study traced OBEs to problems with the vestibular system, which consists of several parts of the inner ear. Problems with the vestibular system can cause dizziness. In the study, OBEs occurred in 14% of participants with dizziness from vestibular system disorders while OBEs only occurred in 5% of participants without vestibular disorders.

The researchers concluded that the dizziness brought on by problems with the vestibular system may lead to perceptual incoherence that can result in OBEs. In other words, disorders may cause the vestibular system to send confusing signals to the brain, and the brain’s attempt to make sense of these signals distorts people’s sense of their bodies and environment.

In addition, a great deal of research seems to indicate that OBEs are the result of a disturbance in the integration of multisensory information in the temporo-parietal region of the brain, including the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ).

The TPJ plays a key role in self-perception and is responsible for integrating information from the external environment and from within the body, including information from the visual, auditory, and other bodily sensation systems.

When multisensory information disintegrates at this region of the cerebral cortex, it can lead to the bodily illusions that are tied to OBEs, including a sense of body reduplication, a difference in location between the body and the self, and a change in perspective to outside the body.

Although these explanations for OBEs are unlikely to be the only reasons people experience this phenomenon, they indicate that malfunctions in the body's sensory systems are often the cause of OBEs.

A Word From Verywell

Out-of-body experiences or OBE's are strange but not all that uncommon. The scientific reasoning behind this phenomenon includes many theories and contributory events. If you have experienced an OBE you probably don't have to be concerned, however if they occur frequently you may want to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.